This is a transcribed phone interview between Jen Saffron, Director of Communications for the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, and Reg Douglas, Artistic Producer for City Theatre Company.
You're the artistic producer for a prolific theater company - I'm sure you've seen a lot of plays. What led you to Pipeline?
I remember when I saw the play in the summer of 2017 with City’s Director of New Play Development Clare Drobot – we are both friends with the playwright and in love with Dominique’s work – I was completely blown away by it. I so appreciated the honesty of the relationships and circumstances and experiences that Dominique was sharing. Pipeline is a wonderfully courageous examination of race, education, love, legacy, and America. I am so proud to be able to share this story with a Pittsburgh audience.
Pipeline centers on a relationship between a Black son and his mother, the hopes and fears that she has as he grows up. I really identify with that story – growing up surrounded by love in my household and family, but still often feeling at a loss as to how to best fit into this culture and this country where love feels denied for Black men in particular. Given the cultural assumptions about black male identity being rooted in anger and rage – which is not true – how does one find joy and hope in a society that is set up to only frame black men in terms of pain and loss? That is a question I am always interested in using art to investigate, as well as what are the limits of love? Are there any? I feel like Pipeline is an interrogation of these questions.
The play is a love story. Dominique has written a love letter to Black men and Black mothers. I think at the core of the play is how strong the bonds of family are. In the midst or in spite of both our country’s complicated history and present relationship with race, the play shows how love can still survive and thrive.
We're in a place and time in our society when art is becoming even more of a vehicle for addressing tough topics - racism and violence during a time of rising actions of White Nationalists, for example. How can a play, and in this case a newer play, help?
I think that the power of good theater, and that’s what we want to make at City Theatre, is to reflect the world as both it is and as it could be. I hope that our production is honest in is specificity, but also that it imagines a world that surpasses our own. Our job in the theater is not to put book reports and news reports on stage, but to create art, to use magic and music and theatricality to help us to better understand the facts as well as find ways to overcome them.
Twenty Black women - leaders in the arts and our communities - have been asked to lead Post-Show Conversations - what do you hope these conversations will inspire?
I hope that the conversations show that this story is a Pittsburgh story. I hope that they inspire a dialogue between people who are normally not talking to each other. The ultimate goal of these conversations is to foster empathy and unity. I think that’s the goal for many artists – to use art to create deeper understanding – and it is certainly the goal of this production. The post-show conversations create a space where audiences can go on that journey towards deeper understanding together.
The post-show conversations have been overwhelmingly amazing. One of the most inspiring things of my career at City has been to witness long-time subscribers, first-time theatergoers, young people, old people, people of diverse nationalities and neighborhoods being courageous enough to share their experience of the play and what’s happening in our city and our country. It really feels like a community coming together to think, engage, live differently and I could not be prouder to be a part of fostering that dialogue and spirit.
This play centers around a young Black man and you've collaborated with 1Hood, young Black men and also women, on the sound for this play. I often find that collaborations, when done well, transform and inform each participant. How was working with 1Hood transformative for you, and what do you think were some takeaways for them?
I knew early on that I wanted to use 1Hood’s music in the show. They were one of the first organizations that I encountered when I moved to Pittsburgh and I have remained a big fan. It was a dream come true working with them on this production. Their artistry, feedback, thoughts, and ideas have been vital to every step of the production process for me and for the whole artistic team, including our amazing sound designer Zachary Beattie-Brown. The word transformative is spot-on. I think that the collaboration working with 1Hood has transformed how City Theatre thinks about being a community leader and community connector. I think all of our staff echoes the desire to continue to connect meaningfully with local artists and to provide space for them to tell their stories and share their work on our stages.
Some of the 1Hood artists were actually just here in the theater today. They’ve become deeply impassioned about theater-making and have interests that I hope we can find ways to support going forward.
And you know, I think very critically as an African-American artist and arts administrator of color in this city, and one of the only ones on the artistic side at our local theaters, about who is given opportunity to share; who is taking up space where and when and how; who is in power; who is making decisions. I helped provide a group of extraordinarily talented African-American artists with power by offering space and resources to make their art and share it with new audiences. That is a dream come true.
What do you think educators here in Pittsburgh might say about Pipeline?
That’s a good question. We worked with quite a few educators on the production. We have two student matinees, and Pittsburgh Public Schools is sponsoring one of them. The teachers at Westinghouse High School also invited us to visit as a research trip and came to the show this weekend. And we have also worked with the staff at Shuman Juvenile Detention Center. The education community in this city has been very supportive.
I think this play shows how hard many teachers are working to provide the best educational experience that they can. Something in the play that I have always been struck by is the respect that Dominique gives the teachers. She even dedicates the play to her mom who is a teacher. I have heard from educators in Pittsburgh and beyond about how much they enjoyed the play and I think that is because the piece allows them to see their lives reflected with honesty and dignity. Like the mother in the play, I think that many of the best teachers are leading with love, and I have the utmost respect for that.
Pipeline, by Dominique Morriseau, runs through Sunday with evening performances W-Sat and matinees Saturday and Sunday. Tickets, information about the play, and showtimes are right here.
1Hood Media will performThursday, November 15, 2018, 6pm at the Andy Warhol Museum at their Artivist Academy Showcase. Pay-what-you-can, information and reservations, here.
Photography by Kristi Jan Hoover, featuring the cast of Pipeline and members of 1Hood: Nambi E. Kelley (Nya), Krystal Rivera (Jasmine), Carter Redwood (Omari), Sheila McKenna (Laurie), Gabriel Lawrence (Dun), and Khalil Kain (Xavier). 1Hood portraits featuring Jacquae Mae and livefromthecity.
Stacy Levy: “It feels good to go back into Pittsburgh. I’ve done a lot more in Pittsburgh since I’ve moved to Central PA –I am glad to come back in this period because Pittsburgh needs all the liveliness, warmth and togetherness that it can have.” Stacy Levy will be live on stage with Walter Hood and Alisha B. Wormsley on Thursday, November 8, 2018 at Hill House for Green Building Alliance's Inspire Speaker Series. Tickets and information, here.
JS: Your art embodies how nature works and not just as an illustration - like Rain Ravine for the Frick Environmental Center. What do you hope your work actually does?
SL: It’s a real collaboration with nature. A lot of artwork pictures how nature works, but I’ve also really tried to move my work so that it’s both collaborating with natural forces and in some cases, working to fix some issue in the landscape.
The first thing is that Rain Ravine was very much a team process. I am a big believer that some of the next environmental artworks are going to be generated in these multidisciplinary settings, because nobody has all the answers in their discipline anymore. You have to share your head in order to come up with new solutions, because the old solutions are not solving the issues. We need new solutions for how we live with nature, in the city. It’s not going to be just engineers who decide where the rain goes – because they’ve been putting the same wine in new bottles for too long – they haven’t been coming up with enough good answers. They need to open up their thinking to engage in new approaches and this is something that artists can offer engineers, architects, and landscape architects. For Rain Ravine, I worked with these three groups and they are all essential to creating a sculpture that looks good and works well.
The Frick Environmental Center project was “can you help make a building and its surrounding landscape be sustainable” because it is a Living Building Challenge. This is the second one in Pittsburgh, the first one being the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps. The idea of sustainability, I think, is best characterized by equity between nature and people, so that people are sharing their landscapes with the natural function of the Earth.
So, rain is something that happens, and thank God it does happen, because all of this moisture is what makes this landscape what it is – it sustains all of the life we have in this biome. But, we treat fallen rain like it’s a toxin – once it hits the asphalt, it something we don’t want, and that’s a big mistake, to turn something precious into a kind of pollution. This is a misdirected idea.
JS: How do you feel Rain Ravine helps people think differently about rain?
SL: Rain Ravine (pictured, above) carries the rain that has fallen onto the building’s roof down to the treatment wetlands. It’s a conveyance that allows you to see the action of the rain, how much rain there is, and it reveals the extraordinary flow of fresh water that happens between the sky and the ground. I think there is real joy to watch that water rushing down the stairway of stone. I also think it is essential to understand the presence of rain even when it’s dry and nothing is happening: the artwork is waiting to carry the rain when it does fall – like an anticipation – so the artwork has to be evocative even when it’s dry, and to create a place to sit and walk and play.
But, it’s also a magnification of the local geology and the rock formations that you see once you get into the more wild areas of the park. Rain Ravine makes a pattern that magnifies this very specific geological formation. It’s like a giant drawing of something you might miss because it’s small in the rocks that make up the stream bed - the artwork riffs on the form of exfoliating stone in the creek.
JS: On November 8, you’re going to share the stage with landscape architect Walter Hood and artist Alisha Wormsley. What do you feel are some intersections in your work and what do you hope to accomplish with this conversation?
SL: Well, I am very invested in a particular kind of equity that is about humans sharing the city with nature. And, doing a more fair distribution of what nature gets to use and what humans get to use. We’ve been building as if we’re slicing the pie and giving nature only one tiny slice and we get the rest. And, in order to live with nature, especially with the increased rains of climate change, we will have to give rain some serious real estate – more space – so it can soak in.
I think that Walter’s work shows a tremendous sensitivity to people who are moving through the space. They are not meant to be seen from a helicopter - they are great to move through. His landscapes are compassionate to people who are on the ground. He is thinking about what people want in their own experiences as they are in the landscape. I’ve looked at some of his projects and they set the stage for human interaction.
JS: Your work is about awareness, despite those who don’t believe in climate change. How can we move people from awareness to action? As artists, how can we be the change?
SL: My job as an artist is to introduce people to what nature is doing, and to celebrate it so that people want to know more about it. I want to give people a way to understand other patterns that are happening in the world that they might not have understood before. If I am really successful, I hope I make them fall in love with nature in the city, and the next time there is a zoning meeting, they stand up for the need for water to soak into the ground instead of being piped offsite. I am creating places that people and rain can share – and sharing the urban space with nature is absolutely critical and becoming even more important as we face greater frequency of storm events and a greater amount of rain that falls per storm. We used to be able to kind of ignore run-off, but it’s coming back to haunt us – the rain draws the maps, now.
Stacy Levy is an environmental artist. Her rain-based works include Rain Ravine at the Frick Environmental Center in Pittsburgh and the Rain Yard at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Philadelphia, allowing nature to show its very own patterns to the viewer. Stacy graduated from Yale University with a BA in Art and a minor in forestry. She earned her MFA from Tyler School of Art, Temple University. She is a recipient of the Pew Fellowship in the Arts. Ms. Levy lives in Central Pennsylvania in the Penn’s Creek Watershed.
Dan Leers became the Carnegie Museum of Art’s second Curator of Photography in 2015, and has been getting us to look at photography in new and interesting ways ever since. Having just exhibited some of the world’s oldest photographs, the Carnegie Museum of Art will open a major exhibition of contemporary photography by Deana Lawson on March 15. Jen Saffron, Director of Communications at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and a photographer, herself, talks with Dan Leers about his vision for the photography program at the museum and what photographs might do for Pittsburgh.
So, Dan, the Talbot show just closed out – awesome exhibition and very rare, not just for Pittsburgh. How did that happen?
I realized in so many of those pictures there was such incredible detail – you could get up close and count the cobblestones in the street, read the signs posted at the construction site of Trafalgar Square. This detail is a lot of what photography actually was for Talbot, that he could take the lens off this machine and it would record everything much more accurately than his hand could have ever drawn it. When you’re talking about detail, you are talking about time, nostalgia, history and I think all of those elements are present in his work and that was one reason for doing a show like that – simply showing these incredibly detailed and early photographs.
Another reason is our relationship with a generous donor of the museum, William Talbott Hillman who is a collector of photography and a photographer, himself, from Pittsburgh – he has a great relationship with the museum, and owns several Talbot photographs. When I first visited him to see his collection in New York City, these early, early photographs sparked the idea that this was the very beginning of photography, this is the first time I am meeting Mr. Hillman, and this is the perfect way to solidify the relationship with the museum.
In the course of organizing the show I was looking at his collection but also building on it with loans from places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art to fill out the big picture of who William Henry Fox Talbot was – he was the quintessential Renaissance man. He was someone who knew a little bit about a lot – botany and chemistry and art history and astronomy – and all of that is in the photographs. I saw themes running through these pictures: the idea of place, his house, his home, his family, his objects, still life, genre-type photographs. So, I started arranging this show and it became 31 photographs. On its face that doesn’t seem like a lot, but these things are incredibly fragile, so 31 is the largest Talbot show in this country in the past 15 years.
You just mentioned place, home, objects, still life imagery. Fast forward, you’re about to open Deana Lawson’s show. While Deana’s work almost looks like a candid photograph, we know from studying her work that these are highly posed works – they are so different than Talbot in mood, tone, temporality, yet you can see the relationship. Can you talk a little bit about how that relationship works for you, as a curator, when you’re looking at such different/similar bodies of work?
Probably there are more differences than similarities in the work but you’re right, there are genres like portraiture and still life that are very much present in Deana’s work that exist absolutely in Talbot’s. We can go back to Renaissance and Medieval art, and ground ourselves in conversations about Deana’s work in those [periods], but understanding that it’s significant that she herself is an African American photographer, female photographer, making pictures of other African American or African diaspora people. She’s taking those very traditional genres or themes and inserting her own vision into them. [Her sitters] bear the weight of heavier conversations about beauty and what is beauty and what defines beauty. And, how do we indicate wealth? Is it purely material or is there spiritual wealth?
I think Deana raises all of those questions in her beautiful and challenging and difficult way. I would say that most of the time her subjects look back at us and challenge us about what are accepted or stereotypical notions of beauty and identity. Part of it is about discomfort. I liken it to the car accident where you know you’re not supposed to look but you can’t help but rubberneck. That’s the sign of a good photograph, regardless of the subject, you want to look but you feel a little uncomfortable looking – you are challenged, you are on your toes, you are thinking in ways you may not have been thinking as a more passive viewer or a voyeur.
If we were take a 10,000 foot view of what you just said, it seems like you are interested in challenging the museum to think about photography in new ways, to reconsider its role in the museum and therefore think about the museum’s relationship to its audiences – what are you hoping to elicit from the audience? What do you think this show of Deana’s will elicit?
I’m interested in the different forms or functions of photography, and if you take Talbot as one book end then Deana is the other, and the history of photography happens in between. I think what’s really important is that I am trying to present different ways of looking at photography or making photography that people are probably familiar with at least in some way, but maybe they haven’t seen or thought about on their own. I am very interested in presenting a diversity of identities and perspectives that will hopefully serve a wide variety of the Pittsburgh local population as well as people coming to Pittsburgh from further afield.
I feel very fortunate that I work with photography in that it’s something almost everyone is comfortable with, now through our cell phones and it’s a way that most people feel like they can get a foothold in the museum. I’m looking for a hook, and photography can be that hook – when the subject of the photograph, like in Deana’s work, is looking right at you and you stop and lock eyes with them, then the experience may be more meaningful and different than you might have with any other kind of art work.
You’ve set about acquiring new artists and bodies of work for the museum’s photography collection. Knowing that people only see a fraction of the collection and the museum by its nature a collecting institution, what’s in our collection? You landed here as a curator and have this collection and also relationships with people outside the museum - relationships that can help shape the collection. What kind of collection do you want, and can you talk about some of your recent acquisitions?
Well, first off I will say that the collection here is an idiosyncratic one. We’ve got about 5,000 photographs, and about 75% of them are pictures of Pittsburgh or pictures made by somebody from Pittsburgh [and that’s not including the Teenie Harris Archive]. It’s certainly the largest holding of pictures of Pittsburgh in an art museum. And, rather than turning away from that, I am interested in embracing that and understanding that as our foundation.
That doesn’t mean we only acquire pictures of Pittsburgh. I’m interested in thinking about it more broadly. That can happen in a lot of different ways. If we think about pictures of Pittsburgh as pictures of a city, or pictures of an industrialized city, well that opens us to think about lots of places like NYC, Chicago, Birmingham, England or Birmingham, Alabama. We can also think about the concept of place - there are many photographers who lived in only one city and only made photographs in that place. What does that mean? What does that do for a collection of photographs?
I am also interested in expanding beyond what we could call the classic or canonical list of artists and movements in the history of photography. It’s only recently that museums have begun to think about vernacular photography or photography made by amateurs. One of the largest acquisitions I’ve made since I’ve come to the museum was about 200 photographs made by amateurs and hobbyists showing daily life. These are the kinds of photographs you have in shoeboxes under your bed. These are the postcards you see at the drugstore. This is the way that photographs exist for most of us. For most of us, we don’t have the pristine, framed black and white photographs, we have the family photo album. So, why isn’t that in our museum?
I’m also interested in expanding the collection in terms of the artists we are representing. Female artists, artists of color, LGBTQIA+ artists – people from these communities have been underrepresented in museum collections and exhibitions and I think that is a mistake. We’ve set about trying to build our collection by acquiring works by Deana Lawson and Mickalene Thomas and many other artists.
I’ve also expanded the collection to include work by African photographers because I’ve lived in and done a lot of research on photography on the African continent. These are important works that have traditionally been ignored by museums. It’s not about presenting competing histories, it’s about parallel histories. What was happening in South African versus what was happening in the U.S.? What was happening in Brazil during a certain period of time? What was happening in Japan? I am really keen to have our collection raise and perhaps answer some of those questions.
As you’ve been saying, photography is not in a vacuum and while some of what we do requires specialized gear and knowledge and science, the majority of photographs tare taken are taken by mothers of small children and we’re all taking photos with our phones. Photography is ubiquitous. So, what do you think is a healthy relationship between curators like you who are in a specialized world of collecting photographs for institutions and the galleries that support more local work and the local buyers? What does that ecosystem look like for you and how does that play out in Pittsburgh?
You hit on it by calling it an ecosystem. The Museum and I are a part of a constellation of outlets that support photography, whether it is Silver Eye or the Mattress Factory or Concept Art Gallery or the PGH Photo Fair all of those are different places where people experience or see photography. Not to mention all of the colleges and universities and their photography programs. I am very interested in being a contributing part of that constellation. We might have the ability, resources, and desire to show photography in a way that other institutions might not but that’s not better or worse, that’s just different.
I am also always interested in seeing what artists are doing – I take my cue from what photographers and artists are thinking about. I am a curator but I am also a person. I like meeting people and hearing what they are interested in. They make other introductions for me to artists and ideas I didn’t know about and I am eager to learn about, and I hope that it’s a two–way street. I hope in turn they can come here and learn something from us.
I don’t want to turn my back on the fact that Pittsburgh forms the backbone of our collection. I am eager to engage with local makers and have started conversations about acquisitions with local artists. I think an artist working here has just a viable practice as an artist working in New York City or any other place. These artists are sometimes even more interesting to us as we can connect it to our collection and our communities. If I find ways to make those local connections and expand them more broadly, then I am doing my job.
Photo captions, in order of appearance:
William Henry Fox Talbot
Nelson’s Column under Construction, Trafalgar Square, first week of April 1844
Salted paper print from a calotype negative
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Anonymous Gift and Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts; 2004 Benefit Fund; W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg Gift; The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund, through Joyce and Robert Menschel; Susan and Thomas Dunn and Constance and Leonard Goodman
© 2018 Deana Lawson
Hear Sean Beauford, independent curator, talking with Houston-based artist Robert Hodge about his work and his recent exhibition at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. The two talk about Hodge's experience of Pittsburgh as well as his art and practice. View Robert Hodge's work as part of the Resident Artists exhibition at Artists Image Resource with fellow artists Ricardo Ruiz and Alisha Wormsley - opening reception free and open to the public on Friday, October 27, 2017. View more details.
Office of Public, a nationally-recognized organization dedicated to the education and technical support of public art in our region, hosts public art walking tours and special, insider studio tours each month – recently selling out tours to places like Thaddeus Mosley’s studio and the Homewood Cemetery. Rachel Klipa, Manager of Community Engagement for Office of Public Art, offers insights and comments on this weekend’s tours of public art in downtown and the Northside – bilingual tours in English and Klingon.
“We knew that Wizard World was coming, and we thought this was a great way to expand our audiences and reach new audiences. After all, public art is for everyone. At one of our staff meetings, someone threw out the idea, 'Hey, we should do this in Klingon!' and we thought, hey, that’s a good idea!” said Rachel Klipa.
She continued, “Kahmeela Friedson, one of our staff members who will participate on two panels at Wizard World, put out a national call for Klingon speakers and three or four people came forward. After interviewing, we determined that Andrew Shull Miller was the best fit – after all, he is a Klingon Language Institute Certified Speaker!”
Mr. Marc Okrand, who has a doctorate in linguistics, created the Klingon language and certifies the language’s speakers through his institute. Mr. Okrand began his linguistic career studying extinct Native American languages from the U.S. West Coast, helping develop the closed-captioning system for hearing impaired television viewers, and now exclusively champions and develops Klingon.
Rachel comments: “I think it’s great that Marc and others can manipulate real concepts and linguistics to make an artificial language, but at the same time I wonder how this fits in with studying and valuing languages that emerged from native cultures. There are, though, people who speak Klingon to one another and the language is validated by this network of people, so perhaps one of the issues this public art tour is raising - as all art raises social issues on some level - is really what native language can be and how people communicate. After I met Andrew, my mind opened to new ideas about the study of language and what they are doing.”
Andrew took the script for the public art tour to Marc, who then created 40 new words to accommodate terms that are in the script for the tour. For example, there is now a Klingon word for the following: monument, art space, Pittsburgh, Allegheny.
Marc is an expert in indigenous languages and is able to incorporate sounds from languages that other people speak. Shares Klipa, “For me, fluent in Spanish, Serbian and English, and a Spanish teacher, I found this to be fascinating. Andrew shared with me that sound combinations from the language the Aztecs (Nahuatl) once spoke are incorporated into Klingon. This public art tour brings a lot into question – regional dialects and accents are disappearing, too, for example. Seeing how much English is influencing Spanish in recent years is amazing. Languages are fluid, and must be able to breathe and adapt to cultural changes or they will disappear – they have to.”
Public Art Tours in Klingon language will be offered this Friday and Saturday. Reserve your tour tickets, here http://www.pittsburghartscouncil.org/events-and-workshops-etc/gpacevents/event/451
Each participant with receive a new book: Pittsburgh Art in Public Places, and will receive free admission to the Toonseum's Star Trek exhibit!
- Friday, November 4, or Saturday, November 5: meet at noon meet in the east lobby of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, then continue the public art walk through town.
- Friday, November 4, or Saturday, November 5: meet at the entrance of the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side and continue the public art walk through the Northside.
On October 2, I boarded a pontoon boat with about 8 other volunteers - a future merchant marine, a corporate communications worker, a vet tech, a man and his 8 year old daughter, some retirees. We had one thing in common: we care about our beautiful three rivers and we arrived to pick up trash and recycling with the Tireless Project. The Re:NEW festival had heard about this through Janee Romesberg of Allegheny CleanWays and Mary Kate Ranii of Pennsylvania Resources Council when they came to our offices to talk about the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. They talked about this mythic boat that sailed the Mon in search of rubbish, and I knew I had to see it, for myself.
The Tireless Project has shepherded 3,595 volunteers to remove 545,063 pounds of debris, including 3,314 tires and 24,365 pounds of metal and other recyclables – all from from our riverbanks and streams. As the City strives to address chronic water and sewer issues with green infrastructure and structural improvements, organizations such as Allegheny CleanWays and Friends of the Riverfront continue their on-the-ground work, eradicating litter and advocating for better policy.
As we removed about a ton of trash and recycling, plus one tire, in less than 90 minutes, I had a hard time fathoming what I was seeing. Like little bits of Styrofoam that marine life confuse as fish eggs and ingest. Or, the waste produced by people living on the riverfront. On the Mon Wharf, a man called out to me from the Smithfield Street Bridge, “Hey you – HEEEEEYYY!” I looked up. A man with a scruffy dog was staring down at me as I was hauling debris in 55-gallon blue plastic drums, headed for the boat. “Hey, see that black plastic bag with clothes in the corner?? That’s MINE – please leave it!” We communicated through shouts and hand signals, eventually coming to an understanding. His encampment would stay intact, the trash and recycling would go.
What about the plastic - the mounds of plastic and Styrofoam that spews forth from portals, directly entering our waterways and impacting marine and human life, at the cellular level? I was having a hard time getting depressed.
What’s this got to do with art?
Artists have long made art from debris and cast offs, with a growing number of artists making art from the plastics and debris from oceans and waterways like Washed Ashore. I knew this, conceptually, but it went to the next level when I met artist Daniel Lanzilotta at the closing reception of the Drap-Art exhibition. This artist from the Bronx makes work directly from plastics he mines from waterways. He and his fiancée, Marae, are headed to Haiti tomorrow to a plastics conference, merging environmental and artistic concerns on the heels of Hurricane Matthew. His enthusiasm and pure commitment is one example of how to turn a depressing topic like litter into an unending mode of creativity.
Discussion with Daniel Lanzilotta, artist
Well, basically what happened was that I was living in France on the Atlantic, as an artist and theater person, which I studied at CMU in the 80s.
I was going to the beach with my son and I was always making and building and fidgeting, and would make little plastic things and as this progressed, I made the rules - I couldn’t use anything but what I found on the beach and I couldn’t use anything but my Leatherman or knife. I started making this language and putting things together and it was fascinating me - I would make these things while my kid was playing. After a while I was finding the same things- microbeads, wheels, etc. and I started spreading out on the beaches and seeing that this same stuff was washing up, everywhere – I was traveling on the beaches all the way to Spain and seeing all of it.
My son got older and I continued on making the art, and I started saying: there is more and more of this stuff, and it’s not going away, this plastic. At this time, my girlfriend’s daughter was killed at the age of 12 in a terrible truck accident. She won the sustainability award for the state of Connecticut for using bamboo to create pizza boxes – she came up with the way to make the box sustainable with bamboo. Then, she was killed.
Back in France this year, I made a dedicated show to her with 26 sculptures, all from plastics from the beaches. I mounted the memorial show in a gallery, and I decided that I was now an environmentalist.
The response to the show was quite staggering - I did not expect that, at all. I started posting to social media and someone from the Bronx saw a post and invited me to become a Bronx 200 artist because I was born and raised in the Bronx. Suddenly, I started getting shows in Brooklyn, Connecticut, and then on to Drap-Art.
As all of this discourse started happening, I shipped the show from France and then went off to the Bronx Museum for the 200 Bronx artists with people from all over the world. I was walking around at the exhibition and I met Marae, my compatriot in this work and now my future wife.
I then did four shows with Trashion Fashion, getting incredible response from them, and continuing to get stuff out of the waste stream and transforming it into garments. I went to the initial artists’ meet up with these accessories, also thinking about Interwrap - the thousands of miles of tarps that cover lumber on trucks – miles of this stuff is either burnt, goes into landfills, or enters the waterways. I started taking this out of the waste stream, these 12 foot rolls of stuff. A designer ended up making a smoking jacket out of it, which was accompanied on the runway with the accessories and a hat made from ocean and street debris.
Somebody in England sent Drap-Art curator Tanja Grass my information and she immediately responded and said she wanted two pieces for the Pittsburgh show – this is my first Drap-Art show, here in Pittsburgh. I cannot really believe how transformed Pittsburgh is from when I was a student – it’s so convivial and interesting – I want to do more work, here.
Especially after the past four years of my declaration as an environmental artist, my life has really exploded. Marae and I are now together, working on these trash fashion shows in Dumbo, now we’re in Haiti participating in a conference with a two-part mission – humanitarian with food and supplies, and cleaning up the river and transforming that debris into art. The Haitian artisans are very well-versed at using hand tools from carnivale, and making use of what’s at hand – this is not going to be amateur hour down there, no.
We’ll also be addressing what they will do with the plastics – they currently burn it, which is not good. There is work being done on biodegradable plastics using sugar from molymers and polymers with an entire industry, but this will take time.
I have 20 years of experience with the ocean, now. My son will be 23 years old. The debris used to be at my ankle, now it’s at my knee. The ocean is literally vomiting up plastics. Every choice we make is a choice to either preserve or destroy the environment.
Transcribed from a conversation between Jen Saffron and Tanja Grass, in Tanja's voice:
The special thing about the Re:NEW Festival is the number of artists that have been able to travel to Pittsburgh from Spain, Argentina, Germany, and other parts of the U.S. - eleven in all. This enriching experience means these artists not only have their artwork shown in Drap-Art, they have been able to exchange with cultural people here in Pittsburgh – other artists, curators, writers. Touring places like Mattress Factory with curator and co-director Michael Olijnyk or having direct conversations with Catherine Evans, Chief Curator of the Carnegie Museum of Art, provide important learning and sharing moments.
And, some artists ave led and participated in educational programs here, like giving workshops and talks, and this has also been enriching for the young people in Pittsburgh as they have been able to create an artwork, talk with an international artist, learn about their life and work. Dolo Navas and Marcel-lí Antúnez Roca were visiting artists at Pittsburgh CAPA, working with high school grades. These artists and teachers shared an experience, together, learning about each other’s practices. By working with these international artists, students have been able to work in an unaccustomed way, like working with teacher Karen Page to showcase students' fashions for the Fashion Extravaganza this coming Friday night.
Marcel-lí and Tom Higgs, teacher at CAPA, made a large-scale sculpture out of discarded plastic bottles, and then the students who made the piece with Marcel-lí paraded it through the streets – fun, empowering and opening horizons for the young people here and for the artists, too, some of which have never been to the U.S. These experiences are eye opening for everyone.
Really, this whole educational part of Drap-Art is very important, because it’s the young people who are going to make the changes.
We’re living in a society in which to have apparent comfort, we are destroying the planet with disposable plastics, which are very practical because you can separate your food, get something to drink, but you can just as well use non-disposable items to handle this. Taking your cloth bag to shop instead of tons of plastic bags would make all the difference because right now, we are invading the planet with plastics, we are even eating microplastics when we eat fish. It’s very obvious that this can’t go on, much longer or we will all turn into plastics, ourselves – it’s already happening on the cellular level in humans.
Drap-Art is all about awareness raising in a fun way. Because either one doesn’t care about the environment, or one thinks it’s too late, it’s catastrophic. The plastic industry wants us to feel this way, to get discouraged and confused and feel we can’t do anything about it so that we’ll just keep buying and consuming. We as the consumers are the ones that have to make the difference because companies are going to make and sell what people buy.
This is what Stephanie Senge’s artwork is all about – she's here now, for the last part of the Re:NEW Festival to build a public mandala made out of consumer goods. She is saying: HEY, CONSUMER! Take consciousness about what it is that you are consuming!
Educating in a fun way encourages people. People come out of our exhibitions with a smile on their face AND an understanding that the plastics industry is a real problem. They can start to use less, use cloth bags. Think if you used one less plastic bag a day – that’s 365 less plastic bags a year. What if you did not buy a disposable coffee cup, but used a nice metal one with a handle? It’s better for you, better for the planet.
Already now, we’re working on our annual festival in Barcelona, which is from December 16 – December 31, smack in the middle of consumer Christmas. Stephanie Senge will also participate there, for which we’re planning a consumer demonstration with materials prepared in a workshop. Workshop participants will make placards with slogans like, “CONSUMER IDEALISM” and “CONSUMER ECSTASY” or “BE A STRONG CONSUMER, KNOW WHAT YOU WANT” and collaborate to create sculptures made from consumer goods – we will parade these sculptures/statues as if they were part of a religious procession.
Stephanie is thinking of recreating the Black Madonna with a very typical biscuit brand on her lap instead of the baby – they are called Maria cookies – to point out how consumerism is covering the need for religion - consuming not because we need to but because we are substituting needs – consumer goods for love, community, spiritualism.
And, that is what good art does; it points out things people do unconsciously, making us more aware of what we’re doing and perhaps why we are doing it. Hopefully, this will help us change and make life better for ourselves and the planet.
Pictured is the Drap-Art artists and team, left to right starting in the back row: Bill Miller (Pittsburgh), Gao Yansong (China/US), Maria Paz (Barcelona), Dolo Navas (Barcelona), Rubén Santurián (Uruguay/US), Imanol Ossa (Barcelona), Haydee Acero (Argentina), Karol Bergeret (Barcelona). Front row: Marcel-li Antunez Roca (Barcelona), Drap-Art founder and curator Tanja Grass (Barcelona).
MaryAnn Graziano, above, recently completed her 100th audio description of a live performance andThe Arts Blog interviewed her about this important volunteer work for arts patrons. This blog post is one of several leading up to the LEAD Conference (Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability), which is part of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. LEAD will be hosted by The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, July 31 – August 6, 2016.
MaryAnn Graziano, middle school Physical Education teacher with Seneca Valley, started volunteering about 12 years ago with Radio Information Services, reading on the radio for blind audiences. Another volunteer at the time was Marilyn Egan, longtime education director for the Pittsburgh Opera. Marilyn asked MaryAnn if she’d be interested in giving audio description a try and MaryAnn said, "Sure, why not?"
But, MaryAnn said, “I didn’t know squat about Opera. I thought, ‘It looks kinda cool.’ I shadowed Marilyn on The Marriage of Figaro. I didn’t know how to read music, but I could follow the words they were singing. I told Marilyn: if you’re willing to teach me, I’m willing to learn.”
Not long after that 2004-2005 season, Diane Nutting hosted audio description training at City Theatre by Bill Patterson of the Audio Description Coalition, and asked MaryAnn to the training. There were eight willing souls at that training, and two are still doing it today – Kellee VanAken at the City Theatre and MaryAnn.
MaryAnn has since gone on to audio describe over 50 operas, plus three seasons with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and theatrical audio descriptions with City Theatre, PICT, and Bricolage Production Company. The Pittsburgh Playhouse recently had a spring production described and is looking to do more.
The purpose of audio description is to describe the visual content of what’s happening on stage for people who cannot see the stage – it provides the missing visual information that is critical to understanding what is happening in a performance.
Sighted people generally do not think about what we take in, visually. But if you are visually impaired, being able to understand the action in the full sense of the production and staging is critical to understanding the plot, and helps visually impaired people understand the audience’s reaction. For example, why did the audience gasp? Is a character quietly sneaking up on another?
Necessity is often the Mother of invention. Marilyn Egan started audio description for the Pittsburgh Opera when a blind patron said that their friend sat next to them whispering what was happening on stage. The patron enjoyed the singing, but couldn’t always understand the stage action. Their homespun methods of audio description were annoying to those around them, so a new solution was created to serve patrons with visual impairment.
Those who need audio description receive an earpiece from guest services. The audio describer, in this case MaryAnn, sits in the tech booth, listening to the performance and watching on a smaller screen, following along the score and describing the story and action to the person in the audience, who hears her voice directly in the single earpiece while the other ear is available to the live performance.
Over the years, MaryAnn has developed relationships with her opera patrons, people who trust her to interpret the performances with nuance and understanding. As in life, it’s not always perfect, but MaryAnn welcomes the feedback; it’s how she has honed this craft, which, as she says, “…is a service, it’s about what THEY need.”
It can be fun, too. One of Mary Ann’s favorite fun moments was seeing the Lieutenant of Inishmore, at PICT. There was a humorous moment in which she timed her description perfectly to the staged humor so that her listener could join in the roaring audience laughter.
There is homework to prepare for that kind of timing. For example, for the Pittsburgh Opera’s production of Tosca, MaryAnn sat in the balcony and watched the dress rehearsal. She saw the lead character slide the knife into her sleeve – something she would have missed on the small screen in the tech booth, but she caught it in the dress rehearsal so she made note of it in the score and brought that scene to life for her listeners.
Most audio describers are volunteers, giving of their time to make the arts more accessible and enjoyable. It’s an adventure for MaryAnn, too – she used to sit in the Opera’s pit orchestra storage room among the instrument cases - jokingly referred to as the Belly of the Benedum. She now sits in what she fondly refers to as the “Taj Mahal” – the sound booth in the back.
Audio description can be fun, too, like City Theatre’s audio description of Sister’s Late Night Catechism, a late night comedy played by a character who’s a nun. When asked to audio describe that production, MaryAnn said, “Heck yeah!”
Photograph by David Bachman
The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council annually leads a delegation of arts advocates from SWPA to National Arts Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. This event is organized by Americans for the Arts, the nation’s arts service organization. Issues we advocates bring up with Congressmen, Senators, and elected officials are federal funding for the arts and humanities for SWPA, what the new federal educational legislation—Every Student Succeeds—means for local STEAM programs, and tax deductibility for donors to the arts. Among the members of our delegation this year were two first-year Master of Arts Management students from Carnegie Mellon University. Here are their recollections of Arts Advocacy Day on March 8, 2016.
Anna Okuda, Master of Arts Management, CMU (’17)
in the image above, back row, third from right
Working in the theater, I have long been interested in collective action. Arts organizations and individuals tend to compete with each other for limited resources and audiences. Although it is important that each organization makes efforts to survive and thrive, I believe that it is equally important that we all work together to make the industry as a whole prosper. Arts Advocacy Day gave me insight into how artists, arts administrators, and board members, could act together for the development of the industry.
Participating for the first time, I was impressed by the fact that hundreds of arts leaders traveled from across the country to work together for the whole industry’s development. In advance we were provided with lot of facts and figures citing how the arts affect the healthy growth of children, how the arts contribute to community development, and how the arts generate economic impacts. Equipped with these data, we met with legislators or their staff, to promote the importance of the arts to their districts and the Commonwealth. I hope that our passion and the convincing data on the educational, social, and economic impacts of the arts will prompt positive action for the arts by the legislators we met with.
National Arts Advocacy Day 2016 was an excellent opportunity for me to experience the power of collective action.
Anne Marie Padelford, Master of Arts Management, CMU (’17)
in the image above, front row, far right
I had heard about National Arts Advocacy Day (AAD) last year when I was researching various arts management programs around the country to apply to. My reasons for going to AAD this year were two-fold: 1) I don’t know much about DC and I wanted to know more, and 2) I wanted to know more about what it means to advocate for the arts. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I realized that many of my colleagues from Carnegie Mellon University and other universities nationwide were on the same journey of discovery.
The beginning of my trip was marked by running into a student in American University’s Arts Management program who I had met last year. She met my CMU colleagues and we ended up meeting up several evenings in DC. So, already, my link to the city and policy was getting stronger!
The training we got from AFTA before visiting legislators was quite long, but I was impressed at the organizers’ efforts at disseminating and explaining the important facts and reasons we would be talking with our elected officials. Meetings with legislators and their staff were exciting from a first-timer’s point of view! I had never been inside our nation’s capitol much less inside a representative’s office. I enjoyed seeing different staff members’ attitudes toward the arts and various legislative bills we were promoting.
I am now aware of the importance of my role as a citizen: to encourage those who represent me and to tell them what is important to me and to my community and why.
Hill Dance Academy Theatre has been activating young minds, bodies and spirits for about 10 years. Founder and Director Ayisha Morgan-Lee started in 2005, founding the organization with a couple of goals in mind – one is to give dancers and students a chance to dance who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it. Here, she shares what drives her, HDAT, and the dream to send her students to Los Angeles. Shares Morgan-Lee:
Celebrating the Black Dance tradition - for me, it’s celebrating as people of African descent to celebrate our legacy through movement. There are a number of Black dance companies that are happening around the country and within those companies they have schools and are training dancers – HDAT is part of keeping that tradition alive.
About 10 years ago, my mom [Dr. Veronica Morgan-Lee] told me to get a job, so I went throughout the Hill District and found people who wanted to dance and started teaching, calling it Dance on the Hill. When I was done with Howard University in 2005, we started HDAT out of Grace Memorial Church with about eight students and myself, and throughout the 10 years, we’ve really grown, really faster than I expected.
We have students who have been with us since they were young and we can now see their growth and how the arts have helped these young people. A part of HDAT is that we want students who are hungry about dance to find out what it’s like to be a professional dancer - that this can be their reality, too.
We use dance as a core element and teach other core aspects that support dance – costume design, physical education, music, theater, and nutrition - so that students, before they get on the stage, have a full appreciation of all that dance encompasses – these students can become a costume designer, a stage director, a lighting person because they have had this knowledge of dance.
I’ve been dancing since I was three years old. I started out in a school in South Hills, and most of the places I went to, I was the only Black girl. I went to Civic Light Opera academy, and there I took jazz, ballet, and tap and met Ms. Leslie Anderson Brasewell, my first Black ballet teacher. Some of my other influences were Buddy Thompson and Tommy Cousins, my jazz teachers. The beautiful thing about these three people is that they are now teaching at HDAT! They encouraged me to pursue my dance career – push me and give me the technique and discipline and they are now teaching HDAT students ballet and jazz.
We just had one young lady receive a partial scholarship to study at Dance Theatre of Harlem and Joffrey Ballet. We have choreographers who are on the national circuit who are now recognizing the gifts and talents in our students and want to come to Pittsburgh to choreograph for our students and companies.
Many opportunities come across our desk, all the time. Part of helping students become professional dancers is accessing these opportunities. Our students generally do not get to see opportunities, for many reasons. I received a notice from Debbie Allen that we could have a master class with Misty Copeland and other artists and I showed it to my mom, then shared it with our very strong parent group, saying we wanted to send the HDAT company to Los Angeles to dance and learn from not only Debbie Debbie Allen but Misty Copeland of American Ballet Theatre – ABT's first Black prima ballerina.
When I told the students we wanted to take them to LA and meet Misty Copeland, they could not believe it – they all have Misty’s book, her picture on their phone – they all want to be her, they want to be the next Misty Copeland. We decided that just like we rally around our Steelers, we want to rally around these dancers and get them to LA! On Saturday, March 5, 8pm – 1am in St. Benedict the Moor’s social hall, we’re hosting a Blue Jeans on Pointe Cabaret and we’re hosting a GoFundMe Campaign online, right now. Sometimes this work becomes a challenge – raising money, giving students as many opportunities as we can. My older ones [students] show me that all of this work is worth it – we are really growing these young women.
And, the 3 and 6 year olds definitely inspire me because they are the next generation coming up – they want to do everything and they are really big on this LA trip, even if they are not going – I know what they are thinking: ‘That could be ME, one day!’